Somenos Women’s Institute celebrates 80 years in the Valley

Back in 1935 and 1936 a group of Duncan-area women decided to organize a Women’s Institute in Somenos.

Ruth Fenner guest columnist

Back in 1935 and 1936 a group of Duncan-area women decided to organize a Women’s Institute in Somenos. Now, 80 years later, current members look back with pride and awe at what an ambitious membership has achieved over the years.

From teas and tea cup reading in the 1930s, concerts, card parties, dances and catered meals, the first decade was varied. They did their share during the war. After the Second World War they continued supporting the Red Cross and in welcoming home the men from overseas, as well as purchasing the Somenos Hall, renamed the WI -Scout Hall and locating and preparing homes for families who relocated from Europe to the Cowichan Valley. The Somenos WI supported the Cowichan Fall Fair, where they entered and won many prizes in the District Exhibit competition.

When floods created problems in England and the Netherlands in the early 1950s, Somenos Women’s Institute gathered and sent donations to their sister groups in those countries. Our 1957 records show our attendance at one of the first Hands Across the Strait Picnics with the Clallum County Homemakers of Washington State. This event continued until 2004 and was a celebration of the unguarded border between Canada and the United States. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the resultant restrictions on crossing the border, the American ladies, who by then were few in number, decided they could no longer carry on with their share of the hosting, and the event passed into history.

In the 1960s, member Dorothy Shaw opened her garden for the WI to host Azalea Teas while she offered tours of the grounds. These events were attended by avid gardeners as well as the curious. Over the years many events have been sponsored by the Somenos Women’s Institute, and tens of thousands of dollars have been raised. Most of that money has found its way to help this community and its residents.

Donations went to the Cowichan District Hospital, the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children in Victoria, BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, to bursaries for students at Cowichan Secondary School and to assist local residents who needed support for a variety of reasons.

Some individual members will be remembered by the community for their specific efforts: Margery Jaggers for cultivation of dahlias, Winnie Rolfe for her efforts with the Cowichan Exhibition; Shaw for her gardens and knowledge of gardening, Joan Mayer and June Skeet for their work with the Basting Belles 4-H Sewing Club, and Joan again with the Sheep Club; and all the members who have worked with and in support of 4-H for many, many years, including annual prizes for the best record book by a 4-H member.

The Somenos WI History Books are dotted with ribbons for their winning entries in competitions entered in local, district, provincial and national competitions — everything from baking to crafts, writing to quilting and a variety of other contests.

In June 2008, Duncan was the host to the Triennial Convention of the British Columbia Women’s Institute, where we unveiled our Centennial History Book, written by one of our members, and where we were able to assist in introducing women from across the province to the agricultural and cultural aspects of the Cowichan Valley. For a number of years we have offered preserving workshops for those women, and men, who are interested in learning how to preserve fruits and vegetables, and make jams and pickles.

Recently, our fundraising has taken an agricultural turn, and we have been serving “Grown in the Cowichan Valley” meals featuring locally grown meats, vegetables and fruits.

Although the names and faces have changed over the 80 years that this group has worked, their focus has remained the same: to assist those less fortunate, to do something positive for our community, and at the same time, learn new skills for ourselves as we work together for home and country.

The Institute is having a celebratory tea on Saturday, from 2-4 p.m. at Duncan United Church. It will include an auction and fashion show. Entry is $15.

Ruth Fenner is the Somenos Women’s Institute historian